It was a creek, but we said crick, and we played there
everyday after school and on weekends, panning for gold,
corralling frogs into Maxwell House cans, and pretending to
be, as I liked to call it, "drowning orphans."
James, a shrug of a boy whose freckled face looked as though his mother had flicked a paintbrush dipped in cocoa satin at it, never said much. He didn't complain that his best friend was a girl. He really didn't have much choice, and besides, I was the one who did most of the work, inventing all of the games. He participated in most of them, with the exception of a few variations on the "orphans" theme (he refused, for example, to do "Orphans Reunited with Mother," while "Prairie Orphans" was, in fact, a favorite).
Sometimes, between seasons, on the days that blurred winter and spring, when the water in the creek bubbled cold, though not cold enough for ice (or "Orphans Stranded in Antarctica"), we would ride our bikes to Maplewood Elementary School, where James was in fourth grade and I was in third. There, we would hang upside down from the monkey bars unless Ronnie, a kid from James' class, was on the premises.
Ronnie wore KISS T-shirts and a Pittsburgh Pirates baseball cap. He carried a comb in the back pocket of his jeans and frequently ran it through his hair during special programs in the school's multi-purpose room. At recess, he played kickball like a kangaroo, and, between turns, would sometimes inform his teammates that they were all going to get drafted if Jimmy Carter was re-elected (political views courtesy of his brother, Jesse, who was a senior and drove a Trans-Am). It was also rumored that Ronnie had, in his possession, all of the Star Wars action figures and a dirt bike, which had propelled him to near legendary status. Ronnie didn't know James very well; at least, I didn't think he did, from the way he'd say, "Hey kid, wouldja go get that ball," or "Kid, get outta the way."
Whenever Ronnie was at the playground, I'd turn my bike around as if to go home. James would want to stay, though he'd refuse to go on the merry-go-round or the swings or the teeter-totters. He would just put his kickstand down, dig his heels into the dirt beside his bike, stuff his hands in his pockets, and squint at Ronnie.
One Saturday afternoon, a late start because of swim lessons, I jumped on my bike and flew up the road to James' house. With long strands of my damp, chlorine-scented hair whipping around my face, I pretended that I was driving a Corvette and flicked on an imaginary turn signal—click, click, click, my tongue dancing on the roof of my mouth. I pulled in James' driveway, threw my bike down on the gravel, and walked past the scarecrows we'd stuffed four months ago, soggy straw leaking out of their flannel shirts and overalls.
James answered the door.
"Hey," I said.
"Hey," he said back.
"We could play pioneers today. Or 'Lost Orphans' maybe," I suggested.
"Your mom won't let you out?" This had only happened twice before.
"Nah," he said. He looked at his feet. "Ronnie's here."
Ronnie appeared behind James holding the Millennium Falcon. James looked like the deer that lived in the woods behind my house, the one that sometimes wandered onto the road when my dad was driving home and stood there until my dad slammed his fist down on the horn. "We're playing Star Wars," Ronnie informed me. I noticed how perfectly feathered his hair was.
"Can I play?" I asked.
Ronnie and James looked at each other. "No."
It was then that I noticed the Han Solo guy in James' hand. I kicked a few stones on the way back to my bike, then pedaled off towards the creek.
I spent the rest of the afternoon pretending that I was an orphan who was trying to build a dam in the river, to save the townspeople from the big flood. It wasn't as much fun as it would've been with James. Even still, I told myself that when he called tomorrow, begging me to come over and think up a game, I'd have to say, "No, I'm busy."
Copyright © Catherine B. Hamilton 2005. Title graphic: "Busy" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2005.